Understanding Story Structure: How to Plan-- or Pants-- a Better Novel

Feb 26, 2013

That's right, I'm at it again-- extolling the virtues of story structure. But let's get clear on one thing: by STORY STRUCTURE I don't necessarily mean PRE-PLOTTING YOUR BOOK.

That's what I used to think about dreaded "plotting." How can I possibly be a plotter instead of a pantser? I wondered. I don't know what to plan until I've written it. I read about things like the snowflake method and still felt lost. It wasn't until I read Larry Brooks' Story Engineering that I finally got it. Planning meant hitting specific points in story structure-- and I just didn't quite understand what those points were.

Now, before I dive in, let me clarify one thing: structure does not mean every story will be the same, boring, formulaic story. It simply means your story follows a certain pattern of reader expectations. Which means you can create a much more satisfying story for your readers. The human brain is used to seeking and following patterns, and some patterns-- like 3 act story structure-- are embedded in us from years of movie-watching and book-reading. Even the very basic stuff of life, DNA, is only made up of FOUR things (guanine, cytosine, thymine, and adenine) in a specific double-helix structure, but look how many species of plants and animal abound on Earth.

The most common form of story structure in Western culture is the 3 act structure. I did a detailed post about that here, but let's simplify for this post. At its most basic, story structure is this: 1) the character meets opposition/antagonist and makes a goal to defeat it, 2) the character fails to achieve the goal, 3) the character succeeds and beats the antagonist.

To break it down a little further, author Dan Wells uses what he calls 7 point story structure, which touches all the basic points of the 3 act system. Basically, your book should hit these 7 points for optimum reader satisfaction.

Hook: What draws the reader in; it sets your character in a position opposite of where they'll be at the end.
Plot Turn 1: The call to adventure-- the story really beings and there's no turning back for the character. (about 1/3 of the way through the book)
Pinch 1: The stakes heat up; more danger/pressure is introduced.
Midpoint: The character discovers something new that allows them to move from reaction to action against the antagonist. (The middle of the book, obviously.)
Pinch 2: The stakes heat up again; often, something big is lost. (Often called the "all is lost" moment.)
Plot Turn 2: The character learns the final information to destroy the antagonist, often at great personal cost. (about 2/3 of the way through the book)
Resolution: The character saves the day.

Does this mean you have to plan out each of these points-- and all the scenes between-- before writing your book? Nope. Once you understand structure, you will start to do it instinctively as you write. And the more you learn, the more you find you can expand from that. For example, Dan Wells once mentioned how he tried to use the structure of a musical fugue to write one of his books (it didn't end up working for that story, but it could for another).

Here's the gist: structure makes for a more satisfying story. Don't be afraid of it, and don't be afraid it makes for a formulaic story. Listen to your favorite song-- it has a structure too. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Of course, that often varies, and some do away with it altogether. But the structure doesn't destroy the song or take away its beauty and individuality.

So, my friends, here's a challenge. Go watch your favorite TV show or movie. Try to pinpoint each of the seven points above. The more you see it in the stories around you, the better you'll understand it, and the better your stories will get. And tell me-- what are your thoughts about story structure? Are you a planner or a pantser? Do you use a type of structure, even unconsciously? Any questions about story structure?

Interview with My Agent (and Me)!

Feb 14, 2013

A while back, awesome writer and blogger Krista van Dolzer at Mother. Write. (Repeat.) invited me and my agent Hannah Bowman to participate in her Agent-Author Chat feature! Today, the interview went live. Hop on over and hear how I got the idea for my book, Hannah's advice on querying and writing, and read my query!

Feel free to ask questions, too. I'll pop on occasionally to answer them (though I don't think Hannah will have the time today).

As for this week's Healthy Writer's Club, I did Zumba three times for forty-five minutes each! Woo hoo! I, ahem, won't mention how many Valentine's Day cookies I had, though...

Happy Valentine's Day, my friends!

Preparing for a Live Pitch to an Agent or Editor

Feb 12, 2013

Writing conference season is near-- hooray! I'm signed up for LDStorymakers in May, which I'm really excited for, especially because I'll get to meet my awesome agent, Hannah Bowman! I'm also (possibly) going to Life, the Universe, and Everything this weekend, if I can get away from baby Noodles for a bit.

Don't do this. (source)
One thing that's awesome about conferences is the chance to meet-- and pitch to-- agents and editors. I pitched to Holly Root at last year's Storymakers, and it was a great experience. Did I end up signing with her? Obviously not. Did that make it worthless? Not at all. I got the chance to talk with a great agent, and get used to talking about my book, both in short and at length. It gave me confidence, motivated me, and made me comfortable knowing agent's are like you and me. So here are a few tips I learned from pitching last year.

Crafting your Pitch
I recommend having a short, one-sentence elevator pitch, as well as a slightly longer (query-length) pitch. I crafted my short pitch first, using the 4 C's format: Character, Conflict, Choice, and Consequence. Something similar to, "When [character] faces [conflict], he/she must [choice] before [consequence]." You can change it up however works. From their, expand on the story. A pitch is simply a short story that tells...well, the story of your story! Choose the details that can structure your pitch like a story. Tell the first part only-- you don't want to give away the end. A good point is to tell up to your first plot point/inciting incident/hero's call to action. Remember, you've got limited time, so keep it short and catchy.

Prepping your Pitch
People have different ideas on this, but my preference is to MEMORIZE your pitch. You want to give it naturally if possible (i.e. you don't want to sound like a robot droning out a script), but you want to be able to give it, period. And odds are, you'll be nervous. So memorize the pitch, in case you need to fall back on that. If you do end up a little robot-like (raising my hand, here), the agent/editor won't mind. They know you're a little nervous!

After memorizing your pitch, PRACTICE it. Not just reciting it. Practice telling it like you'd tell a story. Maybe inject a little information, or leave some out. Let yourself get excited. You want them to be excited too, and they can't be if you aren't! 

One thing I did was prep a document I called a Pitch Plan. I wrote out the who/what/when/where's, typed out my pitches, and put all my research I'd done on the agent (which I HIGHLY recommend). I also prepped answers to common questions agents/editors ask: Why does your book stand out in this market? Who are your characters? What are the themes? What published author would you compare your style to? Who are your favorite authors/books? Is this a series/explain more about future books? Next, I wrote out some questions I wanted to ask the agent: What's your communication style? How do you approach edits and marketing? What are some of your favorite books/authors? How do you feel an agent/author can stay on top of the publishing game?

Then, I staged it. Yup, that's right. I imagined the agent sitting in front of me and staged our conversation, multiple times, in multiple ways. Out loud and early in the morning when no one could hear. :) This helped a TON with my nerves, because I felt truly prepared.

Delivering Your Pitch
And now for the scary/fun part: giving the pitch. Before you go in, give yourself some time to breathe deeply-- this does actually help with nerves. Then, smile. It will give you confidence and help you be in the right mode for talking. Go in, give a firm handshake and a smile, and thank them for meeting with you. It's okay to wait for them to start-- they've likely got more experience, and will probably chat for a brief minute, then ask about your book.

You're ready-- you've practiced. Tell them about your book. Give your pitch. Be enthusiastic, but not overbearing. Share your love for the book, not just the book itself. Then, see if they ask for more, or ask a question. This is your book, so even if they ask a question you didn't prep, you know how to answer. If you've got time left, ask some questions of your own. If they request pages, take down the information and thank them again.

And you're done! And you did great. :)

So, my friends, have you pitched before? Any tips? Will you be pitching soon and have any questions? Ask away! And check out the WriteOnCon Mid-Winter Pitch Fest to learn about pitching online!

The Healthy Writers Club - Trying Something New

Feb 8, 2013

Not going to lie, I'm pretty impressed with my healthiness this week. In addition to exercising more, I also made several healthy meals from scratch and cut back on my junk consumption. And I feel great!

I'm kind of shocked by how much I'm enjoying my exercise. Since it's still cold and pollution-y in my neck of the woods, running has been on hold. My Zumba Kinect game is...well, let's say I can understand what all the hype is about. It is SO MUCH FUN. I'm actually finding excuses to exercise, instead of finding excuses not to. I'm so glad I gave something new a shot.

I think trying something new is important in all aspects of life. It keeps things fresh. In writing, I often try out new processes. In my next book, I'm trying something totally different with world-building. I love playing with new things in my writing-- and exercise.

Weekly Stats: 20 minutes of  Zumba x1, 45 minutes of Zumba x2
In-flight Entertainment Favorite: Can't pick out a song this week-- I had several favorites!
Coolest moment: Completing my first 45 minutes class and feeling great
Hardest moment: The last song before cool-down on the 45 minute workouts

So, my friends, do you like to try new things? What have you tried lately-- in writing, staying healthy, or life in genera--that's been new and fun?

When to Let Go of a Manuscript

Feb 5, 2013

I did something fun this past Christmas. For those who've been around long enough, you might remember my previous manuscript, Devolutionaries. I worked on it for over a year, queried it for 8 months, and got some bites but ultimately nobody loved it quite enough.

Except my teenage brother. I emailed it to him, and he raved about it. Multiple times. Which, of course, made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. So for Christmas, I uploaded the book to Lulu and had it printed out in book-form for him. (And,  let's not lie. For me too, because I still love the book. And yes, I got a little giddy when a book came in the mail with my name on it even though it was basically just an expensive print job.)

Farewell, lizard-alien-from-another-
dimension story! *not the
plot of my story.* (source)
I mentioned this to some online writing friends, and someone asked me if I loved it so much, and if others loved it so much, why did I let that one go?

This is a very tough question. But basically, it boils down to this: it simply wasn't my best work anymore. I'm not saying it was badly written. In fact, I picked it up about a year ago to decide if I wanted to go back to it, and I was quite proud of it. I couldn't necessarily pick out anything WRONG with it (though I'm sure crit partners could). But in the end, I left it in its virtual drawer.

Because I'd written another book in the meantime. A better book. In some subtle ways, I'd become a better writer, and no amount of fixing that old book would bring it up to caliber. It was kind of a bittersweet moment. You see, that book was where I really applied myself to the craft for the first time. I learned more through that book than any I've ever written. And it's still (in my opinion) a great story. But it had its time.

I've seen a lot of writers stick to one book. They rewrite it and revise it and edit it and start from scratch and rewrite it again for ten years. And you know what? That's okay. Because only you as a writer can decide if this work is the one that will take just a bit more push and hit that hot button. I have a friend who did that and, bam, the story found itself. But make sure to write other things in the meantime. Brandon Sanderson himself (yeah, I'm totally name-dropping like I'm the guy's best friend *no shame*) told all of us students to write something completely new for his class. (Which I initially ignored, and learned to rue the day, but that's another story...)

Writing something new is the best way to apply what you learned with the old. So, when do you let go of one and move on? There's no solid answer. It takes being honest with yourself. It takes crit partners willing to be honest with you. It takes working on something new and going back to see if you can truly make that story what it should be. And it takes a willingness to let go and play with a new story that has potential to be a million times better.

So, my friends, have you had a hard time letting go of a manuscript? How did you know it was time? Or did you go back to one and make it better? How did you know that one could get there?

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